For Caroline Polachek, music is “vibrating air that we can have this really rich relationship with.” From synth band Chairlift to a meteoric solo career, her unconventional avant-pop has always explored sound and texture as much as melody. This year sees her star rising to new heights, and to mark the moment she’s created a Marantz Amplified playlist, taking us deep into her musical inspirations.Words: Piotr Orlov
Following a decade-long musical ascension, Caroline Polachek is having a zeitgeist moment — in the midst of a pandemic. Pang, the singer-producer’s experimental-pop album debut under her own name, was released a few months before lockdown.
Polachek’s climb began by writing and singing in the synth-heavy, indie-rock duo Chairlift, and was fueled by collaborations with giants like Beyonce and mold-breaking musicians/producers such as Blood Orange, Charlie XCX and the PC Music crew. Yet she also took mannered left-turns towards electronic ambient music and minimalist rhythms, when she recorded as Ramona Lisa and CEP. In this way Polachek’s art and pop sides were forever in conversation. On Pang, they blissfully united, and Polachek was set to explore them together on a long tour that included slots at the Coachella and Glastonbury festivals: “Things I aspired to my entire life,” she says.
The pandemic put a stop to all that. Yet the forced home-listening period gained Polachek and Pang an even greater audience. “Way more people connected with the record in 2020 than I could have guessed,” she says in wonder. When touring seemed back on in the summer of 2021, Polachek’s dates quickly sold out, with the singer chomping at the bit, even releasing a new song to mark the occasion.
“Bunny Is a Rider” was finished with production partner Danny L. Harle just before lockdown, but the “summer jam about being unavailable” with the shredding bassline, hit a nerve in the ensuing in-between times. By year’s end, Pitchfork’s writers had called this slice of “psychedelic sexy nonsense” (her words) Song of the Year.
But this “sexy nonsense” isn’t necessarily where Polachek’s eclectic listening tastes reside. “I have a real love for things that feel mysterious and unplaceable in terms of time and style,” she says, noting the last time a piece of music truly astonished her: “I was listening to a composer I really admire named Valentin Silvestrov. I really like his piano and vocal works, but I wanted to just get into the outer regions of his catalog, so yesterday I was checking out a choral record of his called Sacred Works from 2007. The opening track is “Liturgical Chants: 1 Litany,” and it's just an incredible piece of music. It's clearly playing off the form of early music, but with all these really modern chord changes like it could have been written in the eighties, it could have been written now, or in the future.
Polachek grew up in nineties suburban Connecticut, completely in love with music. “My listening habits first took off when I got a cassette recorder, around age nine or 10. I could use it to record my favorite songs from the radio, and at the time that felt like a kind of reality hacking. It was so exciting to wait until my favorite songs would get played and record it — to have that kind of urgent relationship with capturing audio.” By the time Napster came along, she was all in, “excited that I could listen to pieces of music I knew I’d never be able to find anywhere else.” But also buying used CDs online, “five to 10 a week, a dollar apiece, just devouring music. To me that was paradise.”
// I have a real love for things that feel mysterious and unplaceable in terms of time and style. //- Caroline Polachek
This musical consumption peaked when she DJ’ed at the University of Colorado’s radio station. Then, ironically, it was starting Chairlift that tampered her youthful listening habits. “Once I started making music, I felt like my ability to listen to lots of it actually dropped off,” Polachek laughs. “It felt like it moved over to listening to things I was making myself.”
Nowadays, her schedule works against her. “I’m usually kind of late for my own life in all things, so I wish I was the kind of person that set aside time to just have a cup of coffee, sit down, and listen to a record from front to back.” But listening remains crucial to her creative flow. “One thing I love to do when I show up to a recording studio, especially one that's not my own, is listen to music on the speakers for a while, just to get myself adjusted to [the space]. That often ends up being really pivotal for where the day goes, and what ideas get me excited.”
And in 2022, scratching the recording itch that the zeitgeist has put in play must now compete with finally playing before her fully grown audience (including dates opening with one of the pandemic’s other break-out stars, Dua Lipa). All this means a new way of imagining and listening, as touring forces a fragmented way of working. “I've been able to work on new music in little snatches,” she confesses, “a couple weeks at a time. But I've never made a record this way, in little chapters while playing live.”
A constant, however, is her love of sound and respect for its effects. “Right now I'm really obsessed with the idea of sounds that are spatially located, that have physicality to them – things that have a kind of warm resonance, but are small and specific and tangible.”
She conjures a poetic description of music as “vibrating air that we can have this really rich relationship with. Without us paying attention to it at all, it can completely transform a social scenario or how we feel or the ideas we have. But then, if you choose to dedicate your attention to it, you can go deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper. I think it makes it so essentially different than any of the other art forms.”
// I used to record my favorite songs from the radio onto cassette tapes, and at the time that felt like a kind of reality hacking. It was so exciting. //- Caroline Polachek
Just an incredible piece of writing, not even to go into the arrangements and her voice, which are amazing. But for me, that song is a prime example of a kind of emotional ‘Odyssey Song.’ Every album I've ever made has one on it — something that develops and evolves and opens up into a kind of climactic ending. It needs to feel narrative and psychedelic and, like, the experience of dilation. ‘Les Fleurs’ for me is an iconic Odyssey Song.
There's so many different kinds of instrumentation on this record — bagpipes, Bulgarian choir, huge stadium tom-toms. ‘The Sensual World’ track is kind of where that album peaks to me, her balancing all these elements in the service of the emotion of the song. It’s this wind-swept internal vignette of Kate's relationship with giving in and saying “Yes,” being swept away by romance, with a person — but it also feels like it's really about life. It's such a pure song, lyrically.”
It is just an incredible layered sonic work — there's so much deep sub and layered voices on it — that all feels at the service of the lyrics. His storytelling, these little montages of crushes and dates and kind of shared moments — is just so special and so personal and detailed. Yet the music is just massive. I love that kind of tension between the intimate and the grand.
This is probably one of my favorite songs released in the last decade. These New Puritans is a duo from the UK, very adventurous. On ‘Beyond Black Suns,’ they work with Scintii, a Chinese vocalist who I admire; and, God, the relationship in the song between the heaviness and the kind of ethereality of her vocals feels like a kind of color that I have always aspired to in my own work, and that they just completely mastered on this song. You kind of feel like your own eyelids are getting heavier, like you’re pulled-under listening to this piece of music. It's just sublime.
On a technical level, this is one of the best mixed and recorded things I've heard in a while. One where you just feel completely intoxicated. The arrangements are so simple, but so warm and detailed, and done with so much soul and precision. I just really admire her music. She also models, so she's gone down a kind of fashion rabbit hole for the last year. But I'm kind of praying that we're secretly getting her working on an album in the background. Because she's amazing on camera, but, gosh, she's amazing on the mic.
One of my all time favorite songs, I pretty much can't ever hear it without crying. The lyrics are a look back at a kind of fragmented abstract of himself as a child — or maybe it's another child he's looking at that he sees himself in, it's unclear. He's moving up and down the scale in different parts of the melody, giving it “through the looking glass” quality. The string arrangements across all his work are incredible and iconic. But he's not even trying to flex at all with the storytelling, with the cinematic aspects which he really is so good at. He's really just settling into pure feeling with this one.
// I've never made a record this way, in little chapters while playing live. My way of thinking about what I'm doing has definitely shifted. //- Caroline Polachek
With her star rising, the singer-songwriter shares a nuanced collection of key influences.
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Header hero image: Karolis Kaminskas. All other images: Nedda Asfari.
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